Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Can America Learn from Iran?

Originally published on WireTap.

It’s not often that we see the words “America” and “Iran” in the same sentence – at least in a context not relating to friction or war. For the first time in years, however, we have reason to put the names of these two countries in sentences that allude to cooperation and mutual respect. Why? Because former president Mohammad Khatami, the major proponent of reform in Iran, is running for a third term in his country’s elections later this June.

For most Americans, the Iranian political experience has been nothing but a series of failures after the 1979 Islamic Revolution. To say that Americans can learn from Iran therefore seems counterintuitive. However, a closer look at Khatami’s attempts at reform in Iran provides a lesson for all of us in the United States, particularly for the Obama Administration and its supporters.

To start with, the parallels between Khatami and the current U.S. president are rather striking: both men have experience living in foreign countries and mixing with other cultures, are considered progressive reformers within their country’s political spectrum, and entered their first presidential races as the underdog. Defying all expectations, both men won their elections and went on to lead their nations. At the start of Obama’s term, hopes are extremely high, just as they were at the beginning of Khatami’s.

However, it is here that Obama and his supporters must take heed of Khatami’s story.

A gradualist like Obama, Khatami wants to promote progressive change without overthrowing the system his country is founded on. During his earlier terms in office, he advocated democracy, freedom of expression, civil society and the greater inclusion of Iranian citizens in the political decision-making process – but all without overstepping boundaries that he believed would cause a backlash in the conservative circles that controlled most of the country. If he offended too many conservatives on too many issues, he could have easily been removed from power, which would have undermined the whole reform project he had in mind for Iran.

His followers, however, wanted immediate change. What Khatami saw as calculated political moves, much of his supporting base saw as timidity and compromise on the ideals of freedom and reform. After a number of Khatami’s reforms were undermined by conservative hardliners, many of these supporters became disillusioned with him. Because of this, they did not come out to vote in the subsequent elections, allowing a conservative president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, to come into power.

What Obama and his supporters must take from this story is that change takes time. Sometimes a leader has to balance between that and stability to ensure that change does take place. Iranians learned this the hard way, and after four years of conservative leadership, they are now struggling to get the very same man they had thrown aside back into the center of power.

Can America learn from Iran instead of repeating its mistake, so that the foundation it is setting for progressive change does not fizzle out within a generation? And, if elected, will Khatami be able to strike a more effective balance between continuity and reform? If the answer is “yes,” both American and Iran can show the world that change, anywhere, is possible.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Excuses + a Philosopher

I know I've been gone for a week now, but my workload managed to somehow triple itself in the last few days. I've hardly had a chance to even glance at the news. But I'm back! The only thing is, I might be posting at a slower pace than I've been these last few months, so apologies in advance. Working on balancing out my schedule.

I want to leave you with something, though, before I log off. I'd been hearing about Marcus Aurelius, the Roman Emperor and Stoic philosopher, for a while now. Yesterday, I decided to finally take a look at his most famous work, Meditations. The text is divided into 12 different sections, or "books," so I thought I'd read the first one to get an idea of what it was about.

The last thing I'd expected was to get hooked. After going through the first book, I read the second one. Then the third. Before I knew it I had read all 12 books, and the afternoon I was supposed to be studying for my midterms in was gone. But it was worth it.

I was really drawn to two of his major topics: the unity of the world and his views on human conduct. He seemed to be leaning towards some sort of pantheism, if I understood his work correctly, or at least arguing that we are all part of one single entity. And his ideas on responsibility towards society and one's self were pretty inspiring. He holds high standards for individual human beings. I'd come across similar standards in different scriptures, but seeing it so beautifully laid out by this "mere mortal" was a surprise.

Interested? Check him out for yourselves. Here's the link I read his work at:

The Meditations, translated by George Long

Till the next post!

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Entering Persepolis

My "wacky history professor" (as he likes to call himself) recently gave me a copy of the graphic novel, Persepolis. Written by Marjane Satrapi, it's about Iran's 1979 Islamic Revolution as seen through the eyes of the author in her early teenage years.

At first, I was a little sceptical about the novel's historical accuracy. I didn't know much about it, except that it had been turned into a film that won the Jury Award in the Cannes 2007 Film Festival. I also knew the author was from a family of dedicated Marxists, so I was weary of the book having strong ideological leanings. I wanted as unbiased a view of Iran's Islamic Revolution as possible.

Reading the novel, it's obvious what Satrapi's biases are. She pokes fun at the veils she and her classmates are suddenly forced to wear, suggests that all religious Muslims are fundamentalists, and equates Marx with God further in the book. But that's part of what makes Persepolis what it is: the novel is her story. It is Iran, Islam, the West, and society all seen through her eyes.

Regardless of whether or not readers identify with her world view, they are able to appreciate her version of history. And what is history if not the conglomeration of people's individual stories? You listen to as many of these stories as you can, then try to create a version of the story based on what makes most sense to you.

Satrapi's version of Iran's Islamic Revolution is not to be missed. It is a passionate, insightful view of the turbulent events that took place in the early years of the Revolution. Read the novel or watch the movie, and you'll have one insider's story of Iranian politics and society at the time. It's another view of the world to keep in mind while trying to figure out what happened in our recent collective history, and where that history is taking us today.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Hamas's Humiliating Blunder

The Gaza crisis of last January did something unprecedented in the Arab World: it unified almost all Arabs in support of Hamas. Prior to the crisis, opinions on Hamas were divided in the region, but since then, almost all Arabs came to see the group as a legitimate armed resistance against the Israeli army.

This last week, however, Hamas made a mistake that has seriously harmed their image in the Arab World. They seized international aid supplies that were coming into the Gaza Strip through the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA). After their stores were raided at gunpoint for the second time in the last few days, UNRWA announced that it is suspending its aid to Gaza until its supplies were returned and it had assurances from Hamas that such actions would not be repeated.

Hamas's move has come under fire from various quarters, particularly in the Arab World. Al-Quds al-Arabi, for example, recently published an editorial called "Hamas made a mistake, and must rectify it." In the article it bashed the armed movement's actions, saying that they seriously undermined the lifeline of aid that trickled into Gaza. International aid agencies are sorely needed in Gaza, and pushing them out of the Strip through such selfish action did not help ordinary Palestinians living there. The newspaper stated:

وربما يفيد التذكير بان ممثلي وكالة الاونروا كانوا اكثر ايلاما لاسرائيل من صواريخ المقاومة، عندما تصدوا بشجاعة للعدوان الاسرائيلي، وفضحوا جرائمه في حق الاطفال والنساء، وتحدثوا بطرق مؤثرة عن معاناة ابناء القطاع تحت
الحصار التي هزت الرأي العام العالمي بأسره.

It may be important to remember that UNRWA's representatives were more harmful to Israel than the resistance's rockets: when they courageously confronted Israeli aggression, exposed Israel's crimes towards the rights of women and children, and spoke passionately about the suffering of Gazans under the blockade in a way that shook international public opinion to its core.
The article acknowledged that Hamas has long been aggitated by UNRWA's refusal to help a wider range of Palestinians in Gaza - the agency only distributes aid to those with the status of "refugee." Hamas rightly states that most Palestinians in the Strip are facing the same problems, whether or not they have the refugee label. al-Quds al-Arabi, however, reminded its readers that UNRWA is, by definition, an agency created to aid refugees and refugees only. Hamas can't make the agency violate its own laws according to the Palestinian group's whims.

In the face of similar public pressure, Hamas has apologized for its seizure of UNRWA supplies. Hopefully, they won't resort to such tactics again. It's only through cooperating with international institutions like UNRWA that they, or any other groups, can improve the situation of those in Gaza - or indeed, any other part of Palestine.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

A Turkish Tangent

Some have claimed that Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan had no right to take the position that he did in Davos earlier this week. They cite Turkey’s past relationship with Armenians, Greeks and Kurds, even going back to the Ottoman Empire to bring up evidence of blemishes on the “Turkish” record of human rights.

While the present Turkish government, or indeed the Ottoman Empire, aren’t perfect, the claims mentioned above overlook the current situation in Turkey and the recent efforts by the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government to address such issues. They also overlook the dynamic grassroots movements across all sectors of the country that demand the government revise its official position on issues from free speech to the Armenian genocide.

Turkey is in a stage of transformation at the moment, and it’s important to remember that change takes time in these types of situations. The AKP, and Erdogan, can’t overturn decades of official policy relating to issues like that of the Kurds overnight. Why? Because those policies are deeply rooted in the Turkish military’s “secular” and “nationalist” ideology. The military has held a dangerous amount of power since the country was established, overthrowing various governments that it did not deem “nationalistic” enough. To achieve any of the positive changes they’ve set out in their charter, Erdogan and the AKP need to stay in power. And doing that involves a risky political dance around the military’s sensitivities.

Despite that, the AKP has managed to make some strides in issues that have long been considered taboo in Turkish politics. Below are some random excerpts from two articles that discuss Turkey’s stance on the Kurdish question. Read the articles themselves, and do some more research, if you’re interested in getting a better understanding of the shift in Turkish politics regarding issues such as this one.

Turkey raises hopes of peace with Kurds - The Guardian (2007)

As well as securing a national victory on Sunday, Mr Erdogan scored a remarkable triumph in the Kurdish south-east, doubling the vote of his AKP or Justice and Development party in mainly Kurdish areas to win an absolute majority of the vote with 52%.

"The AKP beat us. The government now has complete power and legitimacy," said a Kurdish official in the regional capital of Diyarbakir.

Having received such a vote of confidence from the Kurds, Mr Erdogan is unlikely to alienate them ...

In addition to the AKP's electoral success in the Kurdish areas, the main Kurdish party in Turkey, the DTP, took 23 seats, putting it in the new parliament for the first time since 1994. The DTP is seen as the political wing of the PKK. The Turkish election system is stacked against it by setting a 10% national threshold for representation in parliament. The DTP beat the system by running candidates as independents.

"That will make a difference," said Hizsar Ozsoy, a Kurdish analyst in Diyarbakir. "There's definitely a chance for a political opening."

The Erdogan camp has been trying to open political channels to the Kurdish leadership in Iraq for months, but has been stymied by the military top brass and the outgoing hostile president of Turkey.

Behind Major Changes for Turkey's Kurds - Canada's Embassy Magazine (2009)

Many of the changes percolating within Turkish society are linked to the electoral victory of the Islamic-rooted Justice and Development Party (AK) of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, which came to power in 2002 and was re-elected with a sweeping majority in 2007.

Despite widespread distrust of the AK Party's Islamic background, especially amongst ultra-nationalists and the military, Mr. Erdogan initiated a series of political and social reforms that permitted greater protection for basic human rights, including for minorities. (He was also receptive to Greek efforts to lessen tension between the two NATO allies over territorial disputes and Cyprus.)

... [R]ecent actions directed against Erdogan have diminished his commitment to promote further reforms in order to appease opponents, especially the military, perceived as wanting a tougher line towards Kurdish militancy and PKK insurgents based in northern Iraq's Kurdistan province.

Whereas many within the global community are convinced reforms and meaningful changes are necessary to deal with the current problems confronting various societies, in Turkey, change can be a highly divisive issue with no one sure where that country's current changes will ultimately lead.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Showdown in Davos

Earlier this week at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan walked out of a televised interview with Israeli Prime Minister Simon Peres. After listening to Peres justify the killing of thousands of Palestinians in Gaza, Erdogan said that he needed to reply to his Israeli counterpart's remarks. The moderator only gave him a minute or so to speak before cutting him off. Erdogan protested, saying that Peres had been allowed to speak about the Israeli point of view of the Gaza crisis for 25 minutes, while he (Erdogan) was allowed only half that time to speak earlier in the interview. When the moderator continued to interrupt him, Erdogan said that he wouldn't be returning to Davos again, got up and left the stage.

Normally, I would say that Prime Ministers should hold themselves up to a higher standard of conduct. But the fact that it was the Turkish Prime Minister who acted this way makes me think twice before saying anything of the sort. Turkey, after all, has long had a peaceful relationship with Israel - in fact, it has perhaps been the friendliest Middle Eastern neighbor to Tel Aviv.

On March 28, 1949, the Republic of Turkey became the first Middle Eastern country to recognize Israel. Since then, the two countries have cooperated militarily, politically and economically, and they became trade partners due to their geographic proximity and friendly ties. In addition to all this, Turkey has been a driving force for peace between Israel and many states in the Arab world. Most significantly, it was conducting indirect peace negotiations between Israel and Syria, two countries that have been on a collision course for decades.

The fact that this longstanding Israeli ally is outraged by Israel's operations in Gaza, and the Israeli Prime Minister's subsequent justification of his country's actions, is perhaps a reflection of the world's growing impatience with Israel's conduct in the Palestinian territories. For 60 years now, Israel has violated all forms of international law in its occupation of Palestine, from expansion through the creation of illegal settlements, to the subjugation of Palestinians to what some have called apartheid-like policies. And the loss of life witnessed under the Israeli occupation is a whole other issue in and of itself.

Last month's attack on Gaza reminded the world of the violence and death that have resulted since Israel's creation in 1948. Six decades on, it seems that people are beginning to say enough is enough. The Palestine/Israel Question must be answered, and soon. Before any more lives are lost. Justifying an attack like the one on Gaza does not get us anywhere closer to a solution, and that seems to be the message Prime Minister Erdogan hoped to send through his decision to leave Davos.

It seems like many of us across the world have listened up. Let's hope that the Turkish Prime Minister's message will be taken to heart by those who are in the position to change the course of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Only then can this period of bloodshed come to an end.

Read the transcript of the interview here, and watch the video of Erdogan's comments just before leaving the Davos interview below:

Some reactions to Erdogan's move: